Robert Lifton's Criteria for Thought Reform
Applied to the Geftakys Assemblies
Brian Steele, February, 2003
Brian cites many Assembly examples of Robert J. Lifton's eight criteria of thought reform, identified in his groundbreaking book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. The criteria are summarized here on Wikipedia and here.
After being in fellowship for two and a half years in the Assembly in Santa Barbara, I left the Assembly under some unusual circumstances. My parents had me deprogrammed. I was, in a way, intercepted en route to Seattle for a Mission Training Team led by Tim Geftakys. The deprogramming also derailed plans the Assembly had for me to start a campus outreach at Western Washington University, which was to supplement the formation of a new Assembly in Lynnwood, near Seattle.
After being deprogrammed I went to a rehabilitation center for victims of spiritual abuse called Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center. From the deprogramming and my time spent at Wellspring, I learned about the mechanics and dynamics of spiritual abuse.
I have tried to analyze assembly practices and beliefs in the context of the model established by Robert J. Lifton in chapter 22 of his book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. By analyzing the Assemblies in this way I do not intend to detract from the positive aspects of the group. There I found my Savior Jesus, formed a deep love for God, respect for His Word, and cultivated some important Christian disciplines. Nevertheless, there are some serious faults, both in creed and deed, in the Assemblies. This effort is an attempt to synthesize these faults in a framework used to analyze other spiritually abusive groups.
Included is a description of Lifton's eight criteria that constitute a thought reform system of control. Generally, a group tends to be destructive if at least six of these criteria are present. Also included are assembly practices and beliefs that, according to my experience, appear to fall under these criteria. Finally, I include some "red flags" that are separate from Lifton’s criteria.
So what is the use of this analysis? Well, if the Assemblies are truly spiritually abusive, this will serve as documentation for the larger Christian community. If the Assemblies are, ultimately, an unhealthy environment, this analysis will be a warning sign to others who are considering involvement. In the text that follows, each criterion will first be described, and then its applicability to the Assemblies will be detailed. My experience, as well as hundreds of other people, shows that the assemblies meet all criteria identified by Lifton. Gretchen W. has written up her analysis of her 25-year experience in the Omaha Assembly in terms of Lifton's criteria.
- Control of human communication.
- Totalist environment seeks to control external information (that which a person sees, hears, reads, writes, experiences, expresses) and the inner life of a person's thoughts (communication with himself).
- This milieu control can't become absolute, there will always be "leaks".
- The leaders are considered the source and dispensers of truth and knowledge so they try to create a rarefied environment in which only this truth exists.
- To be engineers of the human soul, the leaders must bring it under full observational control, monitoring information and thoughts.
- Person is deprived of both external information and inner reflection, which are crucial for testing realities.
- Strivings toward new info, independent judgment, and self-expression are thwarted.
- A person who experiences a reality outside of the group will negate the experience by not considering it legitimate since it is outside the milieu.
- A hampering in the human quest for that which is true and relevant within and outside a person.
- Us/them mentality keeps outside information from being processed critically
- Person's entire frame of reference becomes the group, has no independent reality or information against which to test the verity of the information the group is giving him.
- Separation from family and friends who represent the outside.
- Control of books read, movies seen, music listened to.
- Communal living further controls the milieu.
- Activities are limited because time is dominated by group. Even if a person wanted to hear another pastor there wouldn't be enough time to do so.
- Intense indoctrination seminars or retreats.
- Information for making decisions supposed to come from "seeking counsel" or consultation from leaders.
- Anything that is not the sacred science (see below for explanation of sacred science) is rejected as evil.
- "Aren't you getting fed here brother? Why do you need to go elsewhere? Doesn't the Lord provide enough for His sheep here?" The implication is that George’s ministry alone is sufficient for spiritual information.
- Preachers or Pastors from outside of the Assemblies not allowed to speak at meetings
- Brothers' and Sisters' and houses of training. Control of the living environment by "Head Stewards" and/or leading brothers.
- "Lord's appointments", special outreach events, extensive lectures at seminars, preclude going to another source of spiritual insight by shear domination of one’s time and energy. An example of full weekly attendance for students includes: corporate prayer tower, corporate prayer meeting, campus prayer meeting, two or three book tables on campus, corporate Bible study, campus Bible study, Coffee House outreach, corporate tape Meeting, and (of course) "all day for the Lord" on Sunday. In addition to these regular "Lord’s Appointments" may be theater/puppet/mime practice, tent meetings, anchor groups.
- Anti-denominational stance held by George inhibits members from seeking outside counsel or fellowship. Though fellowship with other campus Christian groups was not "officially" forbidden, there nominal true interaction with them except within the bounds of the Assembly milieu.
- Members generally have nonexistent, poor or only shallow relationships with family or friends outside of the Assemblies unless the relationship is based on outreach to get a person into the Assembly. This blocks a supply of non-Assembly views, information, and reference points from entering the group milieu.
- Specific patterns of behavior that, though provoked from above, seem to have arisen spontaneously.
- The buzz juice that produces a high or euphoria. It is addictive and there is a sense that one can only get this "fix" from the group (i.e. no other group can worship like "us"
- Planned spontaneity that assumes near-mystical qualities.
- The members are special agents chosen to carry out some imperative.
- A heavenly/spiritual reason is given to normal experiences.
- High emotions and big smiles. A sense that God is in that place in a special way in which He is in no other.
- If two brothers got up to preach on similar topics it was "proof that God was working".
- After a meeting, we would ask one another, "Brother, are you encouraged?" and with an ecstatic look and tone we would describe how God "spoke to us" from the preaching.
- It was assumed that God always spoke through George’s messages.
- Elation that the Assembly was "the Testimony to Jesus". Though elation in and of itself is not bad, the sense that such an elation can only, for all practical purposes, come from the Assembly does contribute to dependency upon the group.
- After a tent meeting at U. C. Santa Barbara campus that had dismal attendance, it was still assumed that "God led us." The thought that the leadership made a poor outreach decision was not publicly entertained.
- George is "The Lord’s Servant".
- The Assemblies are the "purest expression of the Body of Christ" in a given area.
III. Demand for Purity
- World is divided into absolute pure and impure, absolute good and absolute evil. The good and pure is that which goes along with group dogma, evil is everything else that is either contrary or even neutral.
- Very stern moral judgments.
- All taints, poisons, compromises, "bad attitudes" must be eliminated.
- The underlying assumption is that the absolute pure and good are attainable and that all should strive with all their energy to attain it.
- Anything done in the name of this purity is ultimately moral. Truly immoral actions are justified.
- Obviously, it is impossible to achieve the ultimate purity, so the natural result is that an intense system of guilt and shame is established. Everyone is continually failing to meet the standard so they experience tremendous shame and guilt.
- This constant shame and guilt calls for constant reform, rebuking, exhortations.
- Cultists strive painfully for something that not only exists but is beyond the realm of possibility.
- One comes to expect punishment and rebuke constantly since one is always failing.
- Sometimes a person will simulate failure even if there is no failure, for it is safer.
- The demand for purity is also applied to certain personality traits. One trait is viewed as absolutely good and is given excessive virtue, another trait is evil and is strongly condemned.
- This can lead to purges, holy wars, excommunications.
- The sensitivity to complex human morality is destroyed.
- This is the first part of the gerbil wheel.
- Behavior is restricted. This is what the group demands from the person in exchange for the "benefits" that are extended to the member.
- "Go to more meetings, pray more, be more of a servant".
- "Higher Life" doctrine.
- Selfer's prayer repeated over and over, much like a mantra.
- To be an overcome "those who have sensed and responded to the higher call of walking worthy"--Royal Overcomers.
- Bearing a "double yoke".
- Is God on the throne or is self on the throne? (How can self ever be off the throne?)
- Endless sources for failure in houses of training, resulting in a constant stream of "consequences" handed down.
- "Feel free" to attend the "Lord’s appointments" this week. Translation: Go to all the meetings or you are canceling a meeting the Lord made.
- Only that which is in accord to the "New Testament Pattern" is acceptable.
- Must be in the center of "God’s Perfect Will". God’s will is a pin-point members must struggle, with much frustration, to discern.
- "The Work is not conducted on the basis of democracy...We have the right to demand loyalty to The Work...We come into The Work...with a commitment to The Work." From "Characteristics of a Worker".
- Children must attend all meetings and be quiet "in the presence of the Lord."
- In order to be "committed to fellowship" one must attend all meetings, outreaches or events. Any less is not being "committed to fellowship".
- Acceptance and friendship by "the saints" and leadership is initially easy to get, but becomes performance-based, conditional and progressively more difficult to earn and keep as time passes.
- One needs to constantly confess because one is constantly failing.
- This confession creates a strong emotional bond to the one a person confesses to because it requires a type of intimacy.
- Once one confesses, one feels a sense of relief, and release which reinforces even more the failure was real even if it wasn't. If one commits and imaginary sin then one gets a false sense of guilt, but the relief after confesses is suggests that both the sin and the guilt was real.
- This is the second half of the gerbil wheel.
- However the confession often is exploited by those who hear the confession
- Thoughts, words, deeds that violate the purity are to be confessed.
- The confession creates an "orgiastic feeling of oneness" with the group by means of self-disclosure.
- Confession becomes a public performance, a histrionic display, not a genuine experience.
- Personal secrets are endangered by need for self-exposure.
- There is a battle between self-worth and humility. Confession can become a means to attain superiority. If one confession to a large degree, one earns the right to judge others who are less open. One becomes arrogant through self-abasement.
- Practice of "seeking counsel".
- Before one can be right with God, one must "be right with the brethren", requiring a confession of sorts and abstaining from the Lord’s Supper.
- The basic dogma is the ultimate and sacred science. It is the ultimate good for ordering human existence.
- A main tool in maintaining milieu control.
- The basic assumptions of the sacred science cannot be questioned.
- Originators of the sacred science and dispensers of it must be revered.
- The sacred science boasts airtight logic, perfect theology.
- If one harbors doubts on the sacred science then one feels guilty.
- If a person believes that the leader has absolute truth then one will do anything the leader says.
- Results in feelings of uniqueness and elitism because the group is the possessor of the truth.
- The sacred science is very appealing to people because it feels good to have it all together and know it all.
- New Testament Pattern for the church (i.e., head coverings, no church building, "Lord's Supper", Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 3 brothers preaching, witnessing two-by-two, doorkeepers, weekly Lord’s supper, supposed plurality of leadership).
- The inheritance.
- Praying at prayer tower and prayer meetings for "this ministry" and only for Assembly missionaries
- "Heavenly Vision", "Testimony to Jesus", "Golden Lampstand".
- Wes Cohen saying to me, "Nobody has ever left the Assembly for doctrinal differences, only personal commitment problems" clearly implying that the Assembly has airtight scriptural logic.
- George, though not an apostle, has Apostolic authority.
- "Golden thread" weaving through history of the true remnant church with the NT pattern and that thread passing directly through the Assemblies.
- Hymns are offered according to pattern.
- Chapter summary Bible study.
- Morning times, evening times.
- Spiritualization of Old Testament events/themes beyond that which is found in the Bible. George attaching spiritual interpretations to the minutiae of the Tabernacle. Journey of Israel from Egypt to Promise land--with implication for the inheritance for Christians today . Pattern of the Tabernacle analogous to the so-called New Testament pattern for the church.
- Heavenly ladder.
- The ministry of George Geftakys is thought of as "The Work."
VI. Loaded Language
- Thought-terminating cliches.
- Complex human problems are compressed into brief, reductive, definitive sounding phrases easily memorized and expressed.
- For the Chinese thought reformers, one who wanted to think for himself and express individuality was labeled with a "bourgeois mentality" and this label would stop a person from expressing the individuality.
- The language is extremely judgmental and categorizing.
- The language of non-thought.
- A common loaded language helps to bond members and alienate those outside the group. In order to be accepted within the group, the language must be adopted. This further restricts individuality, and molds people into one common image.
- After using the same pattern of words for so long, one becomes chained.
- The imagination becomes atrophied from disuse.
- Words and labels used to stop and make a person conform
- Shop talk that cuts down the thinking process.
- This reinforces milieu control because one can't communicate with outsiders because they don't know the language.
"Lord's appointments "
"the Heavenly Vision"
"miss out on the Kingdom"
the endless chorus of "Praise the Lord", "Amen", "Hallelujah"
"the Lord's will"
"bear a double yoke"
"doing your own thin"
"coveting your spare time"
"avoiding the cross"
"going the way of the cross"
"self on the throne"
"You have a rebellious spirit."
"going the way of the world"
"keep the unity"
"committed to fellowship"
VII. Doctrine Over Person
- Human experience is subordinated to the claims of the doctrine.
- Myths of the doctrine replace actual experiences of the individual.
- Character and identity are reshaped, not in accordance with the personality of the individual, but according to the doctrinal mold and pattern.
- In some Christian cults the ideal person in accord with the doctrine is an extroverted evangelist who goes knocking on doors. An introverted person who doesn't have evangelistic gifts must be forced into the mold, the square peg shoved into the round mold. On the other hand, in many Eastern cults the doctrine dictates that a person be subdued and quiet. If a person is outgoing then he must be forced into the mold, changing personality traits.
- The resistance to the doctrine is labeled as personal problems, pride, or sin.
- Contrary experience must be either denied or re-interpreted to fit the doctrinal mold.
- Results in the obliteration of personal identity and uniqueness.
- The corporate Testimony is greater than any individual and more important, therefore individuals are subordinate to the Testimony.
- Heavy stress and emphasis on corporate scripture verses and the "House of God"
- A person is "coveting their spare time" if they want to do something recreational when there might be a meeting.
- Over-emphasis on certain spiritual gifts: teaching and evangelism.
VIII. Dispensing of Existence
- Anybody outside of the group is a non-person, or a backslider, fallen away, worldly, unspiritual, satanic, compromised, has lesser light, etc...
- A person on the outside has undesirable qualities. To leave the group is to leave God.
- Nazi propaganda films consisted of scenes of rats pouring out of a sewer and the announcer saying that the Jews were rats and vermin. The Jews were non-persons. This rationale aided the slaughter of more than 6 million Jews because it was easier to kill a non-person.
- The dispensing of existence is a strong retention mechanism for members. If someone leaves the group then they too will become a non-person.
- This criterion creates a fear in members for leaving. Some groups, such as the Boston Church of Christ and the JW's believe that they are the only true church, and only those in the group will be saved. Thus if a person leaves, then according to doctrine they will suffer for eternity. This fear is a very strong motivation to stay in the group.
- Other groups proclaim that bodily harm will come to a member who leaves.
- "Meaningful existence is dependent on creed (I believe, therefore I am), on submission (I obey, therefore I am), and on a sense of total merger with the group".
- This also reinforces the milieu control because a person in the group does not want to receive information or communicate with a person outside of the group.
- The dispensing of existence applies even to family members and close friends.
- I knew I was being driven from my family and friends and it hurt me very much, but it was "God's will" and I had to "go the way of the cross".
Dispensing of Existence in the Assemblies
- To leave the group is to leave "God's perfect will".
- To leave is to no longer be "in fellowship".
- One will loose the inheritance if one leaves.
- Typically, only people in the Assembly are referred to as "The saints" other Christians are not.
- People not "in fellowship" are "missing out on God's best", "doing their own thing", "out from under the covering", and "leaving the light".
- Forbidding certain people from partaking at the Lord's Supper creates a visible stigma, a form of marking people who displease the leading brothers.
- People who attend seminary are "funny-mentalists who walk around with Bibles on their heads" or just full of mere "head knowledge".
- A person who has relocated away from the local Assembly due to extreme illness is basically told, "Prepare to die."
IX. Other Red Flags in the Assembly
- Strong leadership and pyramid structure of command, top-down chain of
command. The people in position of authority don't lead the sheep, they
lord over the sheep. Leadership isn't by example but by coercion.
For examle, Wes saying, "Well, I think you'll be there, brother" after
telling him that I couldn’t attend Sunday worship. George is accountable
to God alone. Leaders make decisions for members that are personal
(where to live, job, marriage) via the practice of "seeking counsel".
Other matters of personal preference/opinion are legislated by
leadership: celebrating holidays, dating practices. Exhortation not to
"speak against the leadership" and to "be of one mind" discourages
independent thinking and personal critical evaluation.
Though the "deeds of the Nicolaitians" is, according to George, the division of the church into clergy and laity, there is a well-defined hierarchy among group members.
- Elders (George, Tim, Jim, etc..), leading brothers, workers and couples leading "houses of training", campus workers, people "committed to fellowship" who are living in training homes, regular attendees, new ones. There is little doubt that George is more than a mere "brother among brothers" in this pyramid style of leadership. He has no peer.
- Deceptive recruitment. A "nondenominational Bible study& quot;, free movies, free picnics that attract people, always with the ulterior motive of recruitment. At UCSB we stated repeatedly that the Bible study wasn't associated with any one church.
- Love bombing. The love given is extremely conditional even though unconditional love may be preached. I've lost many good friends. Initially, I was constantly invited to dinner by couples and people in houses of training. Sets up an obligation that can be met only by participation within the group.
- The church as a whole is an island, set apart from the rest of the Body of Christ, attendance at other churches is discouraged, fellowship w/ other Christians is frowned upon.
- No accountability to greater body of Christ.
- Spiritual elitism.
- Discouragement of independent thinking and contrary opinions to "keep the unity" and to "be of the same mind".
- Conflict under the two trees.
- Over-emphasis on only a small part of scripture.
- Only certain spiritual gifts are recognized.
- Individuality is discouraged, members being conformed into the image of the Leader.
- Secretive handling of money.